The rising risk of a US recession has diminished our cautious optimism for global equity markets, as stated in our January Outlook. The first quarter introduced new challenges to growth, including persistently high wage inflation, OPEC’s oil production cuts, and a banking crisis. These negative surprises are concerning and elevate the likelihood of a more severe downturn in the US. In fact, most countries are experiencing declining economic activity, though a soft landing is still possible. Investors with an elevated concern for preservation of capital may consider adopting defensive strategies until conditions improve.
Clouds over the US Economy
The US economy is mired in a difficult environment marked by slowing GDP growth, high inflation, and a Federal Reserve committed to raising interest rates further. The Economist April 8-14 consensus forecasts 2023 US GDP growth to slow to 0.8%, from 2.1% in 2022. The labor market remains a bright spot, with unemployment rates near all-time lows. This has sustained robust consumer spending, though consumers have progressively reduced their savings and relied more on credit for purchases. Though the strong labor market indicates that the US is not currently in a recession, it also has the effect of keeping wages stubbornly high. This creates sticky core inflation and puts pressure on the Federal Reserve to implement additional rate hikes, which impedes economic growth and can cause unintended consequences, like the banking crisis in the first quarter.
Bank Crisis Update
Almost a month has passed since a massive withdrawal of deposits at Silicon Valley Bank on March 9 led to its sudden collapse and triggered a bank crisis. Within a week, several other banks required a rescue. Fears spread that problems in the banking system were systemic and would endanger the entire global banking industry (see Marietta blog Bank Failures Increase Uncertainty 3/21/23). In recent weeks bank stocks have stabilized, although at a lower level, and fears of a prolonged crisis have subsided. The relative calm is due in part to autopsies of the failed banks, which indicates the bankruptcies were a consequence of mismanagement and not a systemic weakness. The stabilization was also in part a consequence of the rapid and effective action taken by the Fed and the Treasury Department.
At this point there is temptation to declare that the bank crisis is over. We think this view is premature, though the risk of a financial meltdown similar to 2008 is unlikely. The new emergency lending facility, the Bank Term Funding Program, is a very positive step forward, as is the government’s readiness to protect depositors. But there is still room for negative contagion to resurface, especially as the Fed funds rate goes even higher. One potential threat is that a huge flow of funds out of bank deposits into money market funds and US treasuries will diminish banks’ willingness and ability to loan, which will slow the economy. Worth noting is the April 4 warning by Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan, “the current crisis is not yet over, and even when it is behind us, there will be repercussions from it for years to come.”
Resilient US Stock Markets
US stock market indices have been resilient, continuing to advance from October lows. However, S&P 500 earnings have fallen for two successive quarters, with projections for the first quarter indicating a third consecutive decline. As companies factor in the negative surprises from the first quarter, it is probable that management teams will issue further downward guidance. This combination of lower earnings expectations and higher stock prices has stretched valuations, pushing up the S&P 500 forward price-to-earnings ratio to 18.0x, above the 10-year average of 17.3x (FactSet Earnings Insight 4/6/23). As equities have gotten more “expensive,” yields on money markets and short-term bonds have risen to a level where they are a legitimate competitive investment. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; it has yet to be seen whether this will significantly impact the price investors are willing to pay for stocks, though the massive movement out of low yield money market funds indicates that investors are paying attention. Though the near-term outlook is muddled, we remain confident in our view that equities will provide investors with solid long-term returns. Investors should focus on adding exposure to quality companies with talented management teams, strong balance sheets, manageable debt levels, and growing market share. Special attention should be given to those companies benefiting from China’s reopening and a weakening dollar.
The International Opportunity
Despite strong growth in India and China, over 90% of international advanced economies are expected to endure declining growth in 2023 (International Monetary Fund, April 11 World Economic Outlook). We expect global growth to decline from 3.4% in 2022 to 2.8% in 2023, in-line with the IMF projection. Although this still constitutes a soft landing, there is a greater risk to the downside. The major negative developments causing this decline are high inflation, synchronized tightening monetary policy, the banking crisis, and the consequences of Russia’s War in Ukraine. A notable gap has opened between GDP growth expectations of 5.2% in China, and, in contrast, 1.6% in the US and 0.8% in the Euro Area. Much of this difference may be attributed to an estimated 2023 inflation rate of only 2.0% in China versus 4.5% in the US and 5.3% in the Euro Area.
We reiterate our view from our last Outlook that long-term investors consider adding more international stocks to their investment portfolios. The US dollar peaked in October and international stocks have rallied over +23% since, measured by the MSCI All-Country World ex-US Index (ACWX). The anticipated economic weakness in the US could push down the dollar further, continuing this trend. Despite this quiet rally, valuations remain compelling at 13.0x 2023 earnings. Developed international company earnings are expected to rise in the first half of 2023, in contrast to the US where they are expected to fall. Not all opportunities are created equal, and our focus is on high quality companies benefiting from long-term trends, including the burgeoning Chinese consumer, the proliferation of semiconductors, and resilient global household spending.
Bonds a Practical Alternative
As concerns for the economy have increased and the inflation rate has slowly come down, yields have reflected this by declining from March highs. In this period where there is a rising risk of recession, quality remains a prime consideration. We reiterate that short-term treasuries offer the best risk reward over money markets and longer-term bonds.